The Stuff of Legend

March 8, 2011 11:43 am by

You’d be forgiven for thinking at least 50 per cent of Chinaman—The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is non-fiction. There are grainy photographs in the book. Names of cricketers like Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva are dropped and more than a few well-known cricketing figures make cameo appearances. Put Mathew’s name in an online search and there’s even a website that explains the technique underlying the bowler’s most famous deliveries. It’s proof that Google, on occasion, does lie, because Chinaman is fiction. Pradeep Mathew is a fictional character. Here’s why author Shehan Karunatilaka’s first novel is a must-read: by the end of the book, you my well be convinced that facts and reality be damned, Sri Lankan cricketer Pradeep Mathew did exist.

Chinaman is set in Sri Lanka and is as much about a dying cricket author’s obsession as it is about the cricketer mentioned in the title. We’re not particularly well-read when it comes to cricket but we’re willing to bet this novel is among the most entertaining history-of-cricket lessons that you’ll ever get. Karunatilaka covers decades of Sri Lankan cricket, outlining the politics, corruption and passion that fuelled those who were associated with the game. The fictional character of Pradeep Mathew seems to be a personification of the country’s cricket—he’s capable of almost anything. Cricket, theft, women, consorting with terrorists, rebellion, Mathew’s done it all. Yet he’s unknown, uncelebrated and barely remembered.

Cricket writer and curmudgeon W.G. Karunasena wants to change this. When Karunasena learns he’s dying, he decides to write a book on Mathew. His friend Ari Byrd, a professor of maths and memoriser of cricket statistics, becomes the Dr. Watson to Karunasena’s Sherlock Holmes. Quickly, Karunasena and Byrd discover there’s almost no record of Mathew ever having played the game. Plus, no one wants to talk about him and more than a couple of people have nurtured a vicious hatred for the man. It stinks of a conspiracy, which Karunasena is determined to uncover.

As Karunasena rambles and rants about everything from googlies to midgets, Chinaman—the book is named after a bowling style and is also a reference to Sri Lankan slang for the word “idiot”—ends up being more about the writer than Mathew. He is a faithful husband, a loyal friend and a frustrated father, all of which should be irrelevant in a tale about Mathew but ends up being the emotional core of the novel. The story of Chinaman is a wild, barely credible tale but what makes the novel riveting is Karunatilaka’s writing. What could have been dreary details of cricketing technique are fluid, accessible descriptions that never feel like they’ve been taken out of a manual. All the tangential rants and reflections prove to be relevant. The characters are carefully conceptualised and consequently, you’ll never mistake Byrd for Karunasena, despite their similarities in age and obsession. Perhaps most importantly for this novel, Karunatilaka is blessed with a wicked, dry sense of humour. His wit and impressive command over the swerving paths that the novel travels serve to make Chinaman a brilliant debut, one that would have been worthy of the legendary Pradeep Mathew had such a man existed.

Chinaman—The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka, Random House, Rs499. Buy it from